A treaty to ban chemical weapons gained strength in the Senate Thursday when Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., swung behind the pact, and supporters easily prevailed on early test votes.
With a final roll call set for later Thursday, Lott cited a string of changes agreed to by the White House in recent weeks - including last-minute written assurances from President Bill Clinton - for his decision to back the treaty.
On the pact, Lott said, "I believe the U.S. is marginally better off with it than without it. . . . It is a close call." He announced his position moments after treaty supporters voted 71-29 to eliminate a provision that would have barred U.S. ratification until Iran, Iraq, Syria and other so-called rogue states acceded to the pact. The White House had labeled the provision a "killer amendment." Sens. Dick Durbin and Carol Moseley-Braun, both D-Ill., and Christopher S. Bond, R-Mo., voted to delete this provision; Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., voted to keep it. A second provision, deferring approval until Russia ratified the treaty, was likewise removed, on a vote of 66-34. A third provision requiring Clinton to bar inspectors from certain unfriendly nations, was defeated, 56-44. Vice President Al Gore presided over the Senate for that vote, in case he was needed to break a tie. Lott predicted that the treaty itself would win with 72 to 78 votes. A two-thirds majority - 67 - of the 100 senators is required for ratification. The treaty would ban the use, development, production or stockpiling of all chemical warfare agents and require the destruction of existing stockpiles over the next decade. Can't Be Verified? It has been signed by 164 nations thus far, and ratified by 75. With or without U.S. ratification, the pact will take effect on April 29. Opponents, led by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., argue that the treaty cannot be verified and would open the United States to danger from nations such as Libya, North Korea and Iraq that refuse to sign the agreement. Helms said, "The truth of the matter is it won't do a thing in the world to help the situation. It's not a comprehensive ban." But supporters argued that the United States was already in the process of destroying its own stockpiles of poison gas and said the only way to isolate renegade nations was through U.S. participation in the treaty. "The best way to affect the behavior of these states is to bring to bear the sanctions, isolate and target those states," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del. Lott's decision appeared to seal the verdict on the Senate floor, and, in a reference to opposition to the treaty from conservatives, he admitted , "I'm going to take a lot of flak for it." Lott began the debate Thursday by releasing a letter from Clinton in which the president said he was "prepared to withdraw from the treaty" if other countries used it to transfer materials that could be used to develop chemical weapons or if it undermined a 30-nation pact that imposes export controls and other measures against proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. …